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Idaho Travel Tips

Amethyst mountains, sapphire lakes, emerald forests, black lava tubes spilling down in tresses of onyx fingercurls, deserts studded in jade prickly pears, bubbly white streams cascade like a string of pearls, ruby sunrises and topaz sunsets . . . this is Idaho, the "Gem State."

STATE TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 635-7820

BOISE

The first day here Ken, the scout, launches his initial exploration of the city. Returns home safely and reports, "If I ever pull a 'He-went-out for-a-loaf-of-bread-and-never-came-back' stunt, this is where you'll find me." Boise is a fantastic town. It's got the stunning Julia Davis Park, boasting a rose garden, city zoo, art museum and state history museum. It's got the Albertson Park, the Morrison Park, and the Morrison-Knudson Nature Center, all along the Boise River and all connected by the 25-mile Boise River bicycle and walking path. And it's restaurant heaven: Romantic Italian ristorantes, home-brewery pubs, Mexican, Thai, an All-American diner, outdoor BBQ grills, grottoes, and even an official Basque restaurant. In addition to the restaurants are a variety of bars for every taste, from fun-filled sports bars, to quiet, elegant wine bars. Six museums, a botanical garden, three cinemas, a ballet company, and a theater make Boise an active place to visit. Yet, it's amazingly compact, clean, and easy to get around. And the people? Friendly, but not fawning.

Statehouse (208) 334-2470

A whisper of whiteness: Four floors of polished white and shimmering gold gleam brightly in an airy, uncluttered circular Capitol. The shiny white marble columns, the glistening white floors and staircases give this statehouse a saintly glow. Very uplifting. Almost spiritual. Indeed, the inside of the dome is painted a heavenly blue with gold stars, reminiscent of the ceiling in Rome's Sistine Chapel (before Michelangelo painted over it).

Idaho Historical Museum (208) 334-2120

A delightful museum with wonderful exhibits of state history. A personal favorite is the display of the state icons, i.e., the state bird, state flower, state tree, etc. The state gem, the Star Garnet is captivating. Seems magical.

Tip: There are two floors of exhibits. We spent an inordinate amount on the first floor, which has fascinating accounts of the lives of Indians, miners, homesteaders and loggers, but then we discovered there's another floor upstairs, showing recreated 19th century living rooms, shops, banks and even a full-fledged barroom, complete with spittoons. So, plan your time accordingly.

Basque Museum & Cultural Center (208) 343-2671

In the 19th century, many people left their Basque homeland seeking fortune in the famous Idaho gold rush. However, the dream of gold didn't pan out and many resorted to the nasty business of sheep herding. Today, a large population of Basque -- the largest concentration in North America -- live in Boise. This museum celebrates their history, music, dance, food, and language, reportedly the one of the oldest languages in the world, although its origins remain a mystery.

Tip: For a taste of authentic Basque food, try the Bar Gernika, a cozy, casual, friendly eatery near the museum.

Old Idaho Penitentiary (208) 368-6080

With its turrets, facades and formal rose gardens, this jail seems more like a castle than a prison. The buildings: the laundry room, the cellblocks, the gallows, maximum security, solitary confinement, the women's prison, the dairy, the stables, and the Warden's House and office, are a fascinating way to experience 19th century imprisonment theories.

Check it out . . . You can enter cellblocks --even the foul solitary confinement cells -- and get a behind-the-scenes look at life behind bars.

World Center for Birds of Prey (208) 334-2120

Birds of prey . . . owls, eagles, condors, hawks . . . are smack in the middle of the food chain, and as such, are excellent indicators of Earth's environment. For example, the near extinction of the Bald Eagle led scientist-detectives to discover DDT as the cause. Although, DDT didn't kill the eagles directly, it weakened their calcium, which made the shells of the newborn eggs too weak to survive. This discovery not only helped save the eagles, but helped mankind as well. Examples such as this show the importance and significance of this center. But in addition to the science and ecology, are the birds themselves. Live condors, owls, eagles, and the rare Harpo Eagle (a very strange, fluffy, feathery creature) are presented in all their splendor.

Check it out . . .getting to this place is as much fun as the place itself. The drive takes you farther and farther away from civilization and higher and higher upon a huge hill overlooking a spectacular landscape. Particularly beautiful in the early morning light.

Morrison-Knudsen Nature Center (208) 334-2225

Everything you want to know about Idaho's ecosystem spills before you at this outdoor walking trail. Roam past mountain streams, waterfalls, wetlands, a high desert plain, lava rock, a garden of native plants, and even a typical Idaho backyard. Wildlife fly above you and scamper beneath your feet as you meander through this "little Idaho."

Check it out . . .Walk across a bridge over a pond and then curl around underneath, and -- Surprise! -- windows peeking into the life of the pond are there for you to spy on the fish in their natural habitat. You can see them, but they can't see you. They swim right up to the window and stare into your eyes. Very interesting if you can get over the feeling of being a "Peeping Tom."

IDAHO CITY

Gold discovered here in 1862 attracted swarms of miners to this tiny town. Old saloons, blacksmith shops, general stores, civic buildings, wooden sidewalks, and even the hitching posts of the boomtown remain long after the goldseekers galloped off.

Tip: From Boise take Highway 21, also known as the Ponderosa Scenic Road, and get a double bonus. The lonely road, wherein yours may sometimes be the only vehicle,has spectacular scenery and historic markers about the difficulties of the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. In one area, you can actually see the wagon tracks across the river.

Tip: Get the best waffles you'll ever taste at the Gold Mine restaurant, just before coming into town. So light and fluffy, it feels like flavorful air-spun bread.

CRATERS OF THE MOON NATIONAL MONUMENT (208) 527-3257

This 83-square mile lunar landscape of black earth was virtually unknown and untouched until 1920 when two guys, Limber and Cole, took their dog for a walk. A long walk. They trekked 28 miles across this unearthly terrain of streaming, smooth lava tubes and sharp, brittle, ragged rocks that blistered both men's soles and shredded the poor dog's paws so badly the pining pet had to be carried. Limbert's reports and photos of this expedition were instrumental in making this a national monument in 1924. And in the 1960s, NASA utilized this moonlike area as a training ground for astronauts. Today tourists can save their soles and ride leisurely along the paved 7-mile loop road to see the sculptured formations of Earth's insides spewed out from a series of violent and torrid eruptions that began 15 million years ago, and ended just 2000 years ago.

Inferno Cone Viewpoint -- Beneath the towering "Big Cinder Butte," one of the largest purely basaltic cinder cones in the world, lies a volcanic landscape of a desolate black earth ,the color of semi-sweet chocolate. Little white flowers, the most delicate little things, dot the ground all over, making the entire area look like a spilled box of Nonpareil candies.

Devil's Orchard -- A meandering walking path, the only hint of civilization, leads through an eerie cinder field scattered with craggy clumps of crater walls that look like they dropped from the moon and landed here all helter-skelter.

Tree Molds and Wilderness -Ancient molten lava flows circled and encased trees and then hardened leaving permanent, cylindrical molds of the trees that remain long after the wood rotted away.

Caves and Tunnels -- A plentiful playground for well-shoed! Imagine trying to climb across a landscape of charcoal briquettes. That's the way to "Surprise Cave." Once there, a large opening admits adults and children alike who are allowed to crawl around and explore the vast interior. Save enough time to hit the endless "Boy scout Cave." And save your energy for "Beauty Cave" and "Indian Tunnel," too, where you can stand upright and walk contentedly and comfortably, along with the other wild creatures who share the surroundings.

Tip: It's cold in the caves, even in summer, so bring warm outer clothing. The park recommends bringing a flashlight for exploring the caves, but I think it would be better to bring a candle and matches, too, both as a backup to low batteries and also to create a scarier atmosphere.

OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK:

Americana Kampground, Boise (208) 344-5733

The Boise River on one side, a stream on the other, weeping willow trees gently rustling along the shore, big brown foothills in the background and a manicured common in the center. What a great campground! Ducks are always quacking and birds are always chirping a happy tune. But best of all is the wonderful location. Walking distance to the Capitol, to museums, to restaurants, and to quaint pedestrian malls -- but the walk is not on city sidewalks. No sir. It's on the Boise greenbelt, a 25-mile biking/walking path that 's right next to the campground and connects to all the city parks. The other great thing about this campground is the laundry room. It's bright, cheery, comfortable and . . .they provide an iron and ironing board! Now I can finally iron those clothes that fell in a crumbled ball months ago. Oh yea, and they have a newspaper vending machine. It's wonderful. So humane. We feel like normal people again, reading the morning paper before heading out for the day.

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